Why the States — Not Congress — Should Keep the President’s “Promise”

In his State of the Union address, the president will propose that “persistently underperforming” public schools, as defined by the No Child Left Behind act, be required offer their students ”promise scholarships” that could be used to transfer to private schools or to out-of-district public schools, or be applied to after-school tutoring.

Promoting educational choice is an excellent idea, but attempting to do it from the Oval Office is not. Even if the U.S. Constitution did not leave power over education in the hands of the states and the people (which in fact it does), a national school choice program would still be undesirable.

When states are left to create their own education policies, it is easy to see how their decisions affect students and communities. We can compare what happens in states that adopt a given policy to what happens in states that don’t. That’s how California’s disastrous side-lining of phonics instruction in the late 1980s was caught and reversed.

But when you create programs at the federal level, any unintended effects occur all across the country at the same time, eliminating the ability to make comparisons across states.

Countries that have adopted school choice programs at the national level (e.g., Chile, the Netherlands, Sweden, etc.) have either imposed extensive regulations on participating private schools right from the start, or have added them gradually over time. Some kinds of school choice policies are likely to generate less of this regulatory encroachment than others, so it would behoove the president to encourage states to develop their own policies rather than impose one from Washington.

When the president floated a similar proposal last year I responded in more detail, and that comment can be found here.